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Heidi Shaffer, Published July 10 2010

State Sen. Tim Mathern attended Harvard with spy

Tim Mathern never suspected one of his Harvard University classmates would turn out to be a Russian spy.

Donald Heathfield, one of 10 Russian agents swapped Friday for four American spies, attended the Kennedy School of Government with Mathern in 1999 and 2000 for a master’s program in public administration.

“He just kind of seemed like a normal guy and … fit in with anybody,” said Mathern, a North Dakota state senator from Fargo.

“And I imagine that would be a preferable quality for a spy,” he said.

Mathern said he didn’t know Heathfield well but described him as a quiet person who was actively engaged academically and socially with the group of about 170.

The class was largely made up of government officials, journalists, military brass and nonprofit leaders from around the world.

Mathern said it’s interesting to look back at what Heathfield was exposed to in those classes and how that time played into his role as a spy.

“It’s kind of funny thinking back now,” Mathern said Friday.

The classes focused on government policy and procedure, but it was probably the connections with individuals who are involved in important decision-making that would have been most beneficial to Heathfield, Mathern said.

The 10 deported spies, who were arrested June 27, reportedly uncovered little of value in their time as agents and were watched by the FBI for years, leaving Mathern wondering if Heathfield’s time at Harvard was part of the operation.

“It’d be interesting to know if he was actually looking for information on us,” he said.

Many of the classmates still keep in touch through e-mail. The group held a 10-year reunion just last month, which Heathfield attended but Mathern missed.

So far, one national leader has emerged from the class – Mexican President Felipe Calderon. And now a Russian spy.

“I’ll be interested to find out who else would be in that class before our lives are done,” Mathern said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511